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Parish Ministry During Coronavirus

Posted on Mar 16, 2020

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 is making headlines across the world, making waves in the global economy and disrupting social patterns across the world. As it begins its spread throughout the United States, our lives closer to home have been changing. Many US Catholics have been following the news of quarantines and lockdowns in China, Italy, and throughout Europe and the Middle East. Throughout the past weeks, we have extended our sympathy for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering across the world and we continue to pray in solidarity with them.

Now, as cities and dioceses in the United States begin to escalate social distancing measures, such as closing schools and canceling Masses, our solidarity with other Catholics is taking on a more concrete shape. In this time of uncertainty, many people are wondering how to respond.

“Build Each Other Up”

In times of pandemic, we have an additional moral imperative to focus our attention on the most vulnerable in our communities. A quick study of the death counts in the United States reveals that the highest concentration of deaths has occurred in Washington State. Of those, the majority have occurred at Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, a nursing home outside Seattle. Clearly, the elderly are the most at risk.

The elderly, those with chronic illness, those whose health is compromised—these are the populations that are most vulnerable to coronavirus and need our attention and our ministerial concern. During this crisis, we have to make our choices not just with our own health in mind, but the health of the entire Body of Christ, particularly those who do not have the same strength, health or ability as ourselves. As Paul writes to the Romans: “It is good not to […] do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble” (Romans 14:21).

During this uncertain time, we should act with the goal of strengthening others and refrain from acting in a way that could potentially harm one of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

So, with this in mind, how can Catholic churches minister to the most vulnerable among us?

This past weekend, major cities and states across the United States followed the lead of the Italian, South Korean, and the Japanese governments to ban public gatherings. Catholic bishops throughout the United States have followed suit by canceling Masses and lifting the Sunday Mass obligation. Catholic churches around the globe have accommodated these closures by streaming Mass online to their parishes. The Archdiocese of Seattle has followed suit by suspending Mass in the diocese indefinitely. 

Seeing the Vulnerable in Our Midst

While it’s true that nothing can replace the physical gathering of the people of God to worship in the liturgy, this crisis is calling each Catholic in affected areas to a deeper solidarity with the Body of Christ. This crisis is highlighting how many Catholics already lack access to Sunday Mass and are not guaranteed the Eucharist each Sunday.

In many regions around the world, the lack of priests means that Catholics do not have regular access to the sacraments. In certain countries, government or social persecution of Catholics means that Catholics cannot attend Mass or take great risks to attend Mass.

But, even closer to home, in our own neighborhoods, many elderly men and women, the homebound, those who lack public transportation or access to priests, or those who work for companies who do not allow them to take Sundays off already cannot make it to Mass on Sundays.

Besides lobbying for stronger rights for workers—a longstanding tradition of Catholic Social Teaching—one avenue through which parishes have reached out to these parishioners are live streams of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on their websites.

When parishioners are homebound or quarantined, your online presence can be a ministry to reach out to your parishioners. Sending messages to your parish members via mass email or voicemail, uploading homilies to your site, and live-streaming Masses are all important ministries through which parishioners can connect with the church community remotely.

Meeting the Need Online

One parish in our own home diocese of Brooklyn and Queens offers a ministry to the elderly in its community. On an earlier generation of our parish website software, St. Mel’s of Flushing, Queens initiated live streaming of their daily and Sunday Masses. Since it launched six months ago, St. Mel’s live-stream Mass page has received over 2,000 unique visitors. Recently, it became the third-most visited page on the site, trailing behind only the home page and the bulletin.

Although we are currently caring for one another by keeping physically distant, the Church—parishes, pastors, and the laity—still has a mission to be Christ’s body in the world and gather together the people of God. As such, we have to reach out to our neighbor, to care for one another, to make one another feel welcome.

During the uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis, we invite you to take this time to consider how you could reach out through your website, social media, or other digital channels not only to fellow Catholics but to all your digital and physical neighbors who find themselves looking for the peace the world cannot give.

The Eucharist: the Medium is the Message

Posted on Oct 9, 2019

If you’re a member of the marketing world, you’ve most likely heard the aphorism “the medium is the message.” This truism is a staple proverb of marketing and digital communications. But did you know that that classic phrase was coined by a Catholic? Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase, was a leading media scholar and a devout Catholic convert. 

Brett Robinson, of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, wrote a lovely profile on McLuhan during Summer 2018. This past summer, Aaron Riches of Benedictine College in Kansas wrote an incisive essay meditating on the liturgical aspects of McLuhan’s work.

Riches’ essay prompted me to think further about what role the internet and digital communications play in the New Evangelization—or, really, in evangelization, period. The core unit of Christian evangelization is the local Eucharistic community—the parish. The parish gathers together to do the liturgy together, to offer themselves up to God through Christ, and to be transformed into Christ for the world.

His essay raises particularly provocative points about the nature of technology. Riches draws on some of the ideas about the human being and technology from the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger believed that the human person—you and me, as we walk around in our daily lives—reveals the truth of being in the world around us. 

While the finer points of phenomenology might not appear to have a place on a digital communications blog, Heidegger’s ideas remain salient for any conscientious, creative communications professional.

Heidegger’s image of the human being as a “revealer of truth” is a pretty easy idea for Christians to latch onto. We are made in the image and likeness of the one true creator God—the foundation of all truth.

“Being” by its very nature is an “unconcealment,” continues Heidegger; it makes some hidden truth manifest for everyone to see. If we think about who Christ is, we see that Jesus is the being par excellence, as he reveals God himself—not just an image and likeness, like us—into the world. 

Besides their own “being,” Heidegger notes an additional way that humans disclose truth, i.e., making truth visible in the world: what the Greeks called poiesis, that is, art: poetry, music, painting, drama. Art reveals the truth about what it means to be a human being.

Just so, argues Heidegger, technology, from the Greek word techne, can reveal the mystery of Being—of God and God’s truth—into the world. Technology, then, has a pretty lofty calling: not only to reveal the truth, but to be a way of revealing God—capital-T Truth.

In a lot of our news cycle, we encounter the failings of the internet: social media platforms that distort truth, news sites that become echo chambers, or those web communities that even actively foster hate. We read about the failings of tech companies. We experience data breaches or loss of privacy.

Given the internet’s many publicized shortcomings, is it really a space that can reveal truth? Can Heidegger’s lofty ideas about technology apply to contemporary digital communications?

In his book The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, Marshall McLuhan says that each new medium—television, phone, radio, internet—opens up a new way of existing in the world. It opens up new experiences and new ways of thinking for each human being who encounters this new medium.

When Jesus told the disciples to bring the Gospel to the “ends of the earth” (Mk 16:15), he expressed the hunger of the Divine Love to encounter every person in every place. Jesus’ words also contain in them a perennial truth: there is no place the Christian Gospel doesn’t belong; there isn’t a single place on this earth Jesus can’t belong. 

There isn’t a single place we can’t bring Christ, there isn’t any place, no matter how large, how small or how strange that Christ doesn’t desire to be a part of. The internet, as a new medium of communication, opens up a new way for human beings to interact. It opens up a new medium for Christ to make himself known.

Pope Francis has called the internet a “gift from God” to be used wisely. The internet can promote authentic relationships with our fellow humans. But McLuhan suggests that it can be even more than that, it can be another place where we can learn more about God and God’s love for us.

One of DeSales’ priority tech initiatives is to develop parish websites. How do parish websites, I wonder, work as a way of bringing people to the truth, revealing the God of truth and life to others? 

As we work to build parish website software, we constantly remember that our goal is not to keep eyeballs glued to the digital page, but rather to drive visitors to in-person encounters: with parish staff members, with the community of the parish, with the Body of Christ. The website is the parish’s digital front door, as it were, an inviting space that serves to attract new members, educate about the Catholic Church, or welcome in strangers looking for a place to go to Mass.

In his essay, Riches claims that the purest form of media, where the medium is the message entirely, is the Catholic liturgy. In the liturgy, the Sacramental Sign of Christ’s body and blood isn’t just a symbol, it really is Christ. The liturgy reveals the truth of who God is: the God who is the bread of life, the life of the world, who sustains us, and who transforms us into bread for others.

The Eucharistic liturgy is the most powerful means of evangelizing. In the Eucharist, we encounter the perfect message: Christ. As the source and summit of our Catholic faith, the Eucharist is the clearest form of communication with the God of love. The liturgy offers a much stronger connection than any other medium—digital or otherwise—can offer.

Update: Check out Molly Gettinger, Communications/Branding Manager for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, reflecting on communion and connection on the internet for the Grotto Network.